With the number of patients testing positive for Coronavirus rising with every passing day, people are increasingly keen on understanding more about the pandemic, about how they can safeguard themselves from it, the new policies and restrictions in place, and who they can reach out to in case of an emergency.

Enter civic-tech start-ups that act as an interface between the government and the citizens. Janaagraha, which operates the I Change My City platform, for instance, has volunteers signing up as Covid-19 responders on their Community Policing program to assist citizens with helpline numbers, information on testing and treatment centres, providing essential goods and services, and connecting them with the police, as their need may be.

“We see ourselves as catalysts,” said Sapna Karim, Head, Civic Participation, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. She said that people have been reaching out to Covid-19 responders for medical support, and information on Coronavirus symptoms, among other queries.

Typically, on a platform like Janaagraha, a person will first post a complaint, which will be mapped to the concerned authority in his/her ward. The relevant authority will then be notified of the same and he/she will address the query. Once the problem is resolved, the complainant will get a notification that it is closed. In case he/she is still unhappy with it, they can reopen the complaint again.

Over 35,000 people have been reached through their online campaigns and information drives on Covid-19 over the past week, Karim added.

Another start-up Civis, a platform that helps citizens understand laws which impact their daily lives and allows them to give feedback on the same in real-time to government officials and legislators, is creating explainers of important policies that are being implemented in India right now.

“We are gathering feedback on the implementation of these laws like the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897, to understand how these policies can be revised to deal with our current challenges and how India can be better prepared for the next such occurrence,” said its founder Antaraa Vasudev.

“Members of our community are sharing incredible insights and learnings from their live experiences to improve policies like the Epidemic Act. From improved supply chain management to social media and fake news, many suggestions are coming in that can help the government, going forward,” Vasudev added.

Vasudev said the site has seen an increase of over 1,000 new visitors over the past couple of weeks.

Reaching out to the public

According to a report titled “Catalysing civic tech in India” by Village Capital, CIIE.CO and Omidyar Network, there are about 450-475 civic-tech start-ups in the country. These start-ups are leveraging technology to bridge the gap between citizens and the government in the best ways possible.

Through their mobile apps and websites, these firms give a platform for people to register their complaints, seek information or connect with the elected representatives in their localities to help solve on-ground issues. In the light of the pandemic, they are now upping their services to help citizens gain access to real-time information, and provide support and relief, without having to step out.

“We have been actively running surveys and polls on our platform with respect to various aspects of this crisis and people are actively engaging with them,” said Pratham Mittal, Founder, Neta app, a platform that enables citizens to rate and review their elected representatives. He added that the leaders contact or visit their platform to know their ratings and the feedback people have provided on their work.

“This gives us an opportunity to draw their attention to major areas of concern in their constituency and sometimes even specific queries,” Mittal said.

In the light of Covid-19, Neta app is running polls to gauge citizens’ sentiments on various aspects related to the pandemic including its economic impact, and approval of government’s performance, among others.

Mittal said that in their latest poll conducted on reporting Covid-19 symptoms to the government, 22 per cent of the people who responded said that they will not report to a hospital if they are found to have Covid-19 symptoms, because they feared the quarantine facilities.

Plans ahead

These civic-tech platforms are now pumping up their efforts to serve the public better – be it enabling them to report a violation of quarantine to the police, or requesting transport to a medical care centre, or catering to basic needs such as food and shelter.

Janaagraha, for instance, is planning to roll out maps on its platform, in the next couple of weeks, that will indicate the closest testing centres and quarantine facilities in the concerned person’s neighbourhood. Civis, on the other hand, is focussing on getting the public’s feedback on policies.

“At the moment, we are working on policy reviews such as on the Epidemic Diseases Act. We are simplifying these policies and publishing them on our website to get inputs from the public,” said Vasudev. “After the current situation calms down, we will be sharing these inputs with the government, so that they can take cognisance of the challenges faced on the ground and provide for them in future policies,” she added.